I recently read two books whose plots intertwined significantly with the history of America’s oldest institution of higher education, Harvard University. The first, Geraldine Brook’s Caleb’s Crossing, is loosely based on the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College (the “Caleb” of the title). The second is Ariel Sabar’s Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. It deals primarily with the much more recent story of how the holder of the oldest endowed academic chair in the U.S., Hollis Professor of Divinity Karen King, was duped into publishing and defending as authentic a fragment in Coptic (Egyptian from late antiquity) which quotes Jesus as referring to “my wife . . . Mary.” That main subject is not the facet of the book on which I want to comment, but the work did make for a fascinating (and cautionary) tale.

Let me insist from the first that I have no interest as a Yale grad in being snarky about the school up the road. Rather, the two books brought to my mind a struggle that has developed over the history of Harvard from 1636 to the present (and equally at my alma mater from 1701 to the present) over the appropriate ways and places to engage in what Valparaiso University’s vision statement calls “our common search for truth.”

Premodern Harvard College—Caleb’s Harvard—existed primarily to provide a learned clergy for (Protestant) Christians in the environs of Boston and, secondarily, to serve as a means of missionary outreach to the natives who then lived in close proximity. The curriculum of that school was heavy on classical languages (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), classical works in those languages, and what we today would label the “humanities.” Modern science was included (especially the natural sciences), but what we would call “social sciences” did not yet exist as distinct disciplines. In all honesty, I could recognize in this curriculum a strong family resemblance to my own pre-seminary preparation in the colleges of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in the early 1970s: lots of ancient languages and literatures and humanities, plus some science (yet by then a fair amount of social sciences, too). Discovery of truth was important, but so were its recovery, articulation, and internalization.

The Harvard University of today, of course, has a much more varied purpose and audience than at its start, to the extent that, according to the book Veritas (which happens to be Harvard’s motto: “Truth”), Harvard’s Divinity School is considered by some faculty in other fields to be a second-rate vestigial organ. (Harvard is one of very few first-rate universities that does not have a Religious Studies Department apart from its divinity school.) The part of the book that caught my eye was the author’s claim that Prof. King’s experience with the “Jesus’s Wife” fragment was in some ways intertwined with an effort at Harvard to revise the general undergraduate curriculum (which is under the supervision of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences). A revision committee had proposed that a course in “Faith and Reason” be added to the requirements. But the proposal died aborning, especially following attacks led by a prominent professor of psychology, who argued that Harvard was in the business of Reason, not Faith, and that a course with this title might be construed as placing these two putative sources of truth on a par with one another.

One of my favorite Luther quotes is that we are all like drunken peasants: if we don’t fall off one side of the donkey, we fall off the other. The psychology professor’s objection to a course in “Faith and Reason” struck me along these lines. His views are little changed from those champions of Reason in the 17th-18th century European Enlightenment who sought to lead humanity out of the superstitions and static truths of the Middle Ages (when the Church had reigned supreme) to a new era of logic and empirical, scientific truth. Their triumph was in some ways exemplified at the end of the 18th century, when Reason was enthroned in Paris’s Cathedral of Notre Dame in place of all that had been worshipped there previously.

Yet to be locked in early modernity makes no more sense to me than to be locked in late medievalism (a temptation among some Lutherans, to be sure). The rise of “post-modernism,” with its emphasis on identity, subjectivity, and context—all of which might be summarized in the phase of a mentor of mine, that there is no truth, only truths—has challenged the champions of Reason Alone from one direction. But that’s not my direction (although I have tried to learn from post-modern insights). Rather, I am minded more in the direction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Stephen Jay Gould (late evolutionary biologist at Harvard) long argued for a theory of “non-overlapping magisteria”: reason and the scientific method to govern the search for truths of natural fact; faith and religion to govern the search for truths of ultimate meaning. I am not ready to join him in so stark a division, but I do credit him with understanding that both reason and faith are legitimate tools in the search for truth. What seems to me undeniable is that faith must have a place at the academic table, if we are serious about understanding what the ultimate Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, called “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

How to have faith participate in the academic conversation—whether more along the lines of religious studies (studies about faith) or along the lines of theology (studies ultimately from faith for faith) is a topic for another day. My answer is contextual: maybe one way at a Harvard and another at a Valparaiso. What I don’t think is reasonably [sic] debatable is that “Faith and Reason” makes for an honest and honorable course at any institution of higher education, including those governed by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

One thought on “In Quo Veritas? Wherein Lies Truth?

  1. George:- I commend you for your conclusion – namely, that “Faith and Reason” belong together – and are a legitimate subject of joint inquiry – in both a religious and secular environment. Here’s hoping and praying that decision makers in both types of educational institutions are hearing you. Lou

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